In her excellent book on writing, Bird by Bird, author Anne Lamott reveals that she often suggests that those struggling to commit words to paper (or screen) write about their school lunches; something about the act of recollecting and writing those details helps jimmy the floodgates open. For Lamott, the act of opening a lunchbox is, “about opening our insides in front of everyone. Just like writing is.” —Daily Post
I was finishing my fourth year of apprenticeship in 1972 and happened to be working on a re-model of the high school that I had graduated from just six years before. The job was winding down and there were four electricians left: Freege (the Foreman), Big Ben, Jack and me.
Lunchtime on a construction job is comparable to having a picnic in a junkyard. You want to find a semi-clean, flat area with a view—preferably in the shade—and you will want to choose your companions wisely, as you will spend the next 30 minutes of your time with them. The four of us favored a shady view of the Athletic fields where students chased a ball of some sort, or exercised and ran laps to get in shape to chase a ball in the near future.
Freege was quiet and reflective, day-dreaming about his golf game (he had a single digit handicap); Big Ben studied. He was taking correspondence courses that could be transferred to a Junior College for an eventual Associate Degree, and then go on to college for a degree in Electrical Engineering; Jack was a dozen years older than me and had taken to eating half of his lunch during the 10 am morning break, and then wolfing down the rest at Noon so that he could hit baseballs on an unused ball diamond with a couple of laborers for the remainder of the lunch hour; Me? I just relaxed and took it all in. The Silent Witness to everything and everyone around me.
Who’s on First?
It was early January and for our baseball enthusiasts, Spring Training was the topic of the day, every day, all day, day after day, without exception. Beginning in 1962, and for the next 33 years, the New York Yankees conducted their Spring Training in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. As it turned out, the laborers, Frick & Frack, were talented semi-pro ballplayers and they had moved to South Florida from Iowa with the dream of trying out for the Yankees.
F&F planned to get in shape by working construction during the day and practicing baseball at night. Shagging balls at midday helped them to work off excess energy and build some camaraderie with their more athletically-minded co-workers. It didn’t take long for Jack to join in the lunchtime fun with the two budding stars.
The closer they got to the starting date for Spring Training, the more intense F&F got. Jack worked the bat for them, driving long bouncing grounders into the infield or laser-like drives down the base lines. Jack’s specialty was the high, pop-up fly ball. He was deadly accurate when it came to targeting a particular player and could drop the baseball onto their position with the precision of a Norden Bomb-sight.
Eventually it came to pass that Jack wanted to join in the fun of catching some fly balls, but F&F didn’t want to give up their practice time to hit balls for his satisfaction. The three of them looked at me one day and an idea was born.
“Al! Hey, Al,” Jack yelled.
I opened one eye and looked up at him. “What?”
“Whaddaya say to hittin’ some fly balls to us?”
“I say, no.”
“Pleeease?” Jack said, putting his gloved hand on his hip for emphasis.
“What are you, 12-years old?”
“I’m tired of just hitting the balls, I want to catch some fly balls.”
“Go back to your playmates and explain to them that they need to share the ball and the at-bats.”
Jack said, “Would you do it just for today? We have 10 minutes left and I won’t ask you to do it again.”
Freege and Big Ben gave me sideways glances, neither acknowledging, nor aiding in my dilemma.
“F—k,” I thought to myself, I am a softie at heart. “Yeah, okay. Alright, just for today. Right?”
“Thanks, man. Yeah, just for today.” Jack said, as we walked over to the baseball diamond.
What’s on Second
I said, “Just so’s you know, I haven’t played baseball in awhile and I wasn’t that good at it even then.”
“That’s OK. It’s even better because we won’t know what to expect.”
Me either, I thought to myself. The truth is that I never played organized baseball, just sandlot games in the neighborhood. If you could hit a ball into the semi-tropical jungle on the other side of the gravel road that defined the back of our outfield, you were pretty sure of getting a home run; unless you were playing with a new, white ball that stood out amidst the vegetation.
“Hey, alright. Whoo-hoo, way to go!” Frick & Frack were excited to see me join in the festivities.
Jack ran out to join his playmates while I agonized over hitting the ball. The first three attempts were some limp ground balls that bounced twice and rolled into the infield.
“Yeah, alright, you’ll get it! C’mon, hit it again!” My cheerleaders were more excited than me at this point.
I stretched my back and twisted my arms and shoulders, using the bat as talisman to ward off any poor performance cooties that might be flying around. Tuning out the chatter of the Three Amigos I tossed the baseball into the air and took a long smooth swing at it.
Crack! I hit a solid line drive between F&F. Frack turned and took off after the ball.
Frick said, “Alright! Smokin’. Gonna have to move back.”
F&F and Jack backed up about 20 yards and I proceeded to get into a groove, hitting the ball each time and putting it fairly close to where I was aiming for it to go.
Jack said, “Aww right, how about some fly balls?”
“Why not?” I said, and I began to hit the ball in high short arcs that were faintly similar to Jack’s towering hits.
Frick hollered, “You’ve got it now! Good job, Al.” He was right, I was doing a good job at hitting the ball and I was having a lot of fun doing it. After a dozen or so attempts I began to get some height and distance on my hits.
“We have time for three more, Al. Make’em count, buddy. See how high you can hit them!” Frack said.
The first fly ball was long and deep to left field where Frack made a great catch at full speed.
“Higher! Hit’em higher!” Frack yelled.
The second fly ball was high and short, caught by Frick on a dead-run from right field.
“One more! One more! See if you can blast this one!” Frick said as he jogged up to me and handed me the ball.
I Don’t Know is on Third
This was a Babe Ruth moment for me, but I wasn’t going to point the bat to where the ball was headed—I had no idea where it was going or how it would get there. I looked at Jack in Center Field, Frack had moved off to the far edge of Left Field to give him some room to maneuver.
I nodded my head at Jack and he returned the gesture. I tossed the ball into the air and made a mighty swing upwards. If it had been a Pinata we would be scraping candy off of the clouds, but it was a baseball and it was headed almost straight-up and away at sub-orbital velocity.
Jack was as surprised as I was and for a moment he just stood in place, watching the baseball gain altitude. After a split-second he turned and started running for the back of the outfield, looking over his right shoulder, tracking the white ball in the clear blue sky. The baseball reached the top of its arc just before it reached the bottom of the Noonday Sun and it began descending rapidly, a white-hot dot getting lower and growing larger.
Jack was still running away from my position, still looking back over his right shoulder, extending the glove in his left hand out and up to catch the ball and make the play that would end the day.
“Go, Jack! Get it, son!” Frick was excited for Jack.
Frack joined in from Left Field, “C’mon now, you can do it!
“Holy Shit, he can run!” I muttered, watching Jack streak into the distance, the ball getting closer and closer to the ground.
“Faster, Jack! Faster and you’ll catch it!” Frack began to run across Left Field towards Jack.
Still looking over his right shoulder, Jack ran under the ball and appeared to trap it between his chest and mitt, spinning to his left and falling down face-first on the ground in a pile of arms and legs. Jack didn’t move.
“Christ, you’ve killed Jack!” Frick screamed.
“Me? What the…?” I stammered as we both ran towards Jack’s inert form.
Frack was there long before us and he was visibly shaken as he kneeled beside Jack, who was still face-down. I could see blood on the grass below Jack and on his hands and arms that were covering his face. Frack was talking slowly to him, “We’ve got to get you up, buddy. We need to take a look at this situation and get you the right kind of help.”
“What happened, Jack?” I said, “Did you get hurt when you fell?”
Frick offered Jack a handkerchief and when Jack moved his hand to take it we could see that his nose was a bloody broken mess. “Nah, I caught the ball with my face, not my glove,” he said.
“You looked like you got shot right as you made the catch,” Frick said.
“I suppose so,” Jack said, “it kinda felt like it.”
The next sound we heard was the bellowing voice of our beloved foreman, Freege, “WHAT DID YOU DO TO JACK?”
“Nothing. He fell down,” I said.
“FELL DOWN? HE FELL DOWN?? HE LOOKS LIKE YOU TRIED TO KILL HIM!”
“Easy, Freege, we are doing the best we can here,” I said.
Luckily for me, Freege was interrupted at this point when Ben showed up with some wet and dry rags. Nobody called Paramedics back in those days, at least we didn’t, we got Jack cleaned up and took him to the doctor’s office where his nose was reset and he received some pain medication. Ben picked up Jack’s wife and brought her to the job to take his car home.
Strange as it may seem, they give ball players nowadays very peculiar names. —Bud Abbott, Who’s On First?
Jack’s place in history was secured the next day, Wednesday, which happened to be Payday. Our Superintendent, Bill, stopped by the job to hand out our paychecks and he found Freege, Big Ben and me working together in an electrical closet.
As is the custom, he handed our checks to Freege to pass out to us and then he said, “We got a call from Jack this morning, saying he wouldn’t be in.” It was actually a question in disguise, Bill was good at this.
Freege answered, “Yeah, I know. He got hurt yesterday.”
“Is it serious, will he be OK?” Bill said.
“Yeah, he’ll be off the rest of the week and back on Monday.”
Ben and I kept working, doing our best to stay out of this conversation.
“It was something about his nose…?” Bill said.
Silence, then Freege responded, “Yeah he was using a new bender.”
Bill chuckled, “You mean…”
“Yeah. You know how you use a particular hand bender and just get used to it? After awhile it is just a part of you, you don’t even think about it anymore—it is an extension of you?”
Bill chimed in, “And then you reach down and grab a different one, one with a handle that is a different length than you are used to. Maybe it is longer? The balance is off? ”
“Yeah, and you are in a hurry to get the job finished and when you pull it up real quick…”
“Splat! Jack Splat!” Bill said.
“You’ve got it, Jack Splat,” Freege said.
Bill started laughing uncontrollably at this point. He leaned against the wall to hold himself up as the three of us looked at him uncomfortably. “No, no, I’m not laughing at Jack. I am laughing at myself—I thought that I was the only one who was ever in a hurry and broke their nose using an unfamiliar bender!”
Jack Splat, a great guy and a valuable lesson for me throughout the rest of my years in the Trade.
Sons of Electricity Image Design Credit: SOE Chitown